Building a consulting pipeline is tough in any year. In 2020, the uncertainty caused by the pandemic made companies cautious, so it was harder to get projects agreed and started. I tried out different actions to build my project pipeline, and some worked better than others. Here are the top 3 things that made a difference to building my business as a solo consultant. They might not be what you expect!
Spend your time wisely
Time gets away from you when your established routine is broken. Without strong deadlines or direct feedback, it’s easy for actions to be postponed, half-done or forgotten in the jumble of dealing with lockdowns and working from home.
So the most important success factor is: Be very intentional about how you spend your time. What you spend time on, and what you get done, makes the difference between building your business or seeing it languish. It sounds obvious, but it can be hard to do in practice.
As an “army of one”, all the work has to be done by you, although you can outsource parts of it. This work includes refining your positioning, creating and publishing your marketing, building and nurturing your network, prospecting for leads, pitching for projects, negotiating with clients, working on projects, doing administrative overhead, keeping your expertise up to date, and, last but not least, having fun and enjoying what you do.
You can’t do it all at the same time, so choosing what to do and when is critical. Chet Holmes, author of The Ultimate Sales Machine, lists “The Time Management Secrets of Billionaires” as his first strategy for business success. If you let time get away from you, you will look back after two months and wonder where it went. As Anthony Iannarino says, “Show me your choices and I’ll show you your results.”
So how do you make this work?
Firstly, prioritise. Where are you in building your business and what are the biggest gaps? What’s needed to fill your sales funnel (if you’re prospecting) or get project work done more effectively (if you’re working for a client)? Which elements of business building do you need to do now, and which later? Decide what you will not do, so that you can put enough effort into your priorities. Put the most time into your top priorities.
Secondly, block time in your calendar for important tasks, particularly those that you tend to postpone then regret not doing. Jeb Blount, in Fanatical Prospecting, describes time-boxing as a key strategy for getting critical work done. When I’m not on a client project I block time for prospecting, writing, doing my weekly review and updating my CRM.
Thirdly, review your progress regularly to stay on track. Choose the format that works for you, whether it’s a weekly review of your to-do list, a bimonthly review of your annual goals, or a monthly chat with an interested friend. The value of the review is to decide what action you will take to keep making progress. So after the review, put the most important actions on your to-do list and do them.
Keep taking action
You create momentum through your actions. It can be hard to feel motivated when the world is bleak, the future is uncertain, the sky is grey, and the lockdown seems never-ending. The solution for feeling down is to get up and do something. And then do it again the next day. Keep the action going and stay away from stagnation.
If you postpone taking an action because you’re not sure what to do or what will come out of it, see it as an experiment. The action doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t hit the bullseye. Just doing something will generate momentum, so try calling someone, writing a blog post, coming up with a new idea for your client, or asking for feedback. It’s even better when you involve another person, because the interaction provides new energy.
Maintaining a regular rhythm of getting things done is an easier way to keep going than slowing to a stop then restarting. If you have a natural bias for action, it may be easier for you than if you’re more reflective (like me). A regular schedule can help as well. Instead of writing for 8 hours one day and none the next, try something like writing for 2 hours every Thursday. I aim to write a LinkedIn post every Tuesday morning, and I manage to get it done most weeks.
To see results from what you’ve done you need to finish what you start. I have many ideas going on at the same time, so I have to make myself finish things. I tend to make my ideas big, comprehensive and elaborate, so a lesson for me is to make things smaller and easier to get done. What also helps is to give yourself a reason to finish something, like someone waiting for the outcome, a reward for yourself, or even the satisfaction of crossing it off your to-do list. I remember what Steve Jobs said: “Real artists ship.”
If you’re finishing lots of actions and not seeing enough results, it’s time to take a step back, review your goals and the actions you have taken so far. What worked well, and what less well? What have you learned from the experience? How would you adjust your plan? Are there other actions that could lead to your goal? What would someone you admire do to reach this goal?
Not every action needs to have a direct payoff. Do something because it makes you happy, gives you positive energy, contributes to a cause, or helps someone you know. I make time to talk to everyone who comes to me with a question because I like discussing business ideas and I enjoy helping others. It gives me energy to keep the momentum going.
Connect with more people
If you’re not doing anything else to build your pipeline, connecting with people is a must-do. Consulting is a people business. Our work is to help people solve problems, even if we frame it as working with companies or delivering projects. Your potential clients are people who look for other people (not agency brand names) to help them. So staying connected with people you know, and getting to know more people, are both vital for your business to thrive.
Your best source of business is referrals and repeat customers. People who have worked with you before and like what you did, trust you enough to refer you or ask you to work with them again. But they won’t ask you if they have forgotten that you exist. So keeping in touch with former colleagues and clients is vital. It’s also loads of fun! Talking to someone you have worked with triggers good memories of your collaboration and shared interests, and brings back the connection that you had.
You also need to build connections with new people, since you cannot get by on past connections alone. Take part in networking activities, join an industry organisation, or connect with people on LinkedIn. However you do it, get in touch with new people and set up one-to-one meetings (video calls) to talk to them. Find out what they’re up to and share your expertise. Ask for feedback and suggestions. Offer to help them out. You’ll find that it’s good to share experiences and learn what’s going on with others. Once you get to know them, stay in touch.
Having conversations with people you like gives positive energy and motivation when you’re feeling lonely as a freelancer. When you don’t have colleagues, everyone can be your colleague. There are no company boundaries that determine who you talk to and who you don’t. For me, the freedom to talk to anyone is one of the upsides of being an independent consultant.
These are the top 3 things to keep in mind: choose how to spend your time, keep taking action, and keep talking to people. There’s more to building your business, such as reputation building, prospecting, pitching and so on. But I keep coming back to these as a foundation, and applying them consistently makes a huge difference to my motivation, my energy level and my project pipeline. May they be useful to you as well.
© 2021 Veridia Consulting